the Rathouse
Series of Very Abbreviated Versions of Classical Philosophical Works for Very Busy People.
Chapter 9:      Perfectionism, Utopianism

‘Everything has got to be smashed to start with. Our whole damned civilization has got to go, before we can bring any decency into the world.’ —‘Mourlan’, in Du Gard’s Les Thibaults.

‘All citizens above the age of ten must be expelled from the city and deported somewhere into the country; and the children who are now free from the influence of the manners and habits of their parents must be taken over.’ – Plato.  

This chapter runs to only 12 pages and it contains some of the most important arguments in the whole book because countless millions of lives have been ruined by the application of the principles of revolutionary utopian social and political reform. It is helpful to read this chapter with the image of Pol Pot’s Cambodia and Mao’s China in mind.

"Inherent in Plato’s programme there is a certain approach towards politics which, I believe, is most dangerous. Its analysis is of great practical importance from the point of view of rational social engineering. The Platonic approach I have in mind can be described as that of Utopian engineering, as opposed to another kind of social engineering which I consider as the only rational one, and which may be described by the name of piecemeal engineering."

The piecemeal reformer will seek to address the most urgent evils of society instead of aiming to achieve the greatest ultimate good, and this may look like a verbal quibble but Popper argues that in fact it is the difference between a reasonable method of improving the lot of man, and a method which may easily lead to an intolerable increase in human suffering. Recall that Popper was not fully aware of the extent of the Soviet disaster when he wrote this chapter, and Cambodia and Mao’s experiments in China were still some decades away.

"The case for utopian engineering runs like this: to act rationally we need to have an aim (an end), and then actions can be classified as rational if they are consistent with that end. By this logic, political actions are rational if they pursue the final end that has been set for the reform of the state. In that way, actions are driven by our ultimate political ends. We have to be clear about these, and especially we have to have a vision of the best state of all because that must be the constant goal and inspiration for all political activism, however distant the goal might be and whatever obstacles are in the way.It is important to realise that the Utopian element in that chain of logic is the determination of the ultimate goal, not just intermediate or partial goals. But there is no scientific way to decide the ultimate ends of political action and so these things are a matter of ideology with the result that disagreements often resemble religious differences."

There is no scope for tolerance between different Utopian religions so the Utopian must either convert or destroy his Utopianist competitors. On top of that it may be necessary to do more than merely destroying the opposition but also to stamp out the very memory of it. It was probably George Orwell who pointed out that for the totalitarians, control of the past is essential to the control of the future and so history has to be re-written, even to the extent of airbrushing out important figures from group photographs when they fall from favour with some later regime.On top of that, criticism of failures on the way to the goal has to be suppressed, otherwise doubt may be cast on the very goals themselves, the people may cease to have confidence in the leadership.

The rational alternative to all of this is piecemeal change and reform. People who adopt this method may or may not have a complete blueprint of society in mind, and they may be open-minded about the the prospects for achieving an ideal state of happiness and perfection on earth.

At this point, recall the moral principles proposed in Chapter 5 – minimise suffering rather than maximise happiness, promote tolerance and avoid tyranny. These guiding principles fit like a glove with piecemeal reform, and with democratic government, because most people can agree on concrete steps to address suffering and the problems of people in need, whereas there are likely to be many conflicting views on the way that happiness should be sought.

"In favour of his method, the piecemeal engineer can claim that a systematic fight against suffering and injustice and war is more likely to be supported by the approval and agreement of a great number of people than the fight for the establishment of some ideal. The existence of social evils, that is to say, of social conditions under which many men are suffering, can be comparatively well established. Those who suffer can judge for themselves, and the others can hardly deny that they would not like to change places. It is infinitely more difficult to reason about an ideal society. Social life is so complicated that few men, or none at all, could judge a blueprint for social engineering on the grand scale; whether it be practicable; whether it would result in a real improvement; what kind of suffering it may involve; and what may be the means for its realization. As opposed to this, blueprints for piecemeal engineering are comparatively simple. They are blueprints for single institutions, for health and unemployed insurance, for instance, or arbitration courts, or anti-depression budgeting, or educational reform. If they go wrong, the damage is not very great, and a re-adjustment not very difficult."

Bearing in mind the general principle of learning from mistakes, and the function of experiments in science, social reforms can be viewed as experiments and sensible politicians will monitor the results and look out for unexpected complications, unintended consequences, and even the discovery that the reform was simply misguided and should be reversed. The point is to ensure that the change is reversible and killing people is not a reversible process.

While piecemeal reform fits democracy, Utopian reform virtually demands a dictatorship, and a harsh and uncompromising one to boot. This is because a benevolent dictator will have great difficulty finding out from his sycophantic courtiers whether the effects of his policies agree with his good intentions. 

"Another difficulty of Utopian engineering is related to the problem of the dictator’s successor. In chapter 7 I have mentioned certain aspects of this problem. Utopian engineering raises a difficulty analogous to but even more serious than the one which faces the benevolent tyrant who tries to find an equally benevolent successor . The very sweep of such a Utopian undertaking makes it improbable that it will realize its ends during the lifetime of one social engineer, or group of engineers. And if the successors do not pursue the same ideal, then all the sufferings of the people for the sake of the ideal may have been in vain."

Some common misunderstandings of piecemeal reform need to be corrected. First of all, the piecemeal reformer does not have to be pessimistic or negative about the prospects for major improvements. Popper pointed out that many things have been realized which have once been dogmatically declared to be unrealizable, for instance a degree of civil peace and the reduction of crime within the state to a decent minimum. "What I criticize under the name Utopian engineering recommends the reconstruction of society as a whole, i.e. very sweeping changes whose practical consequences are hard to calculate, owing to our limited experiences. It claims to plan rationally for the whole of society, although we do not possess anything like the factual knowledge which would be necessary to make good such an ambitious claim.'

Second, the piecemeal reformer is not restricted to petty, trivial or small scale experiments, such as reforms of a single village. The reformer will mostly be concerned with social institutions which extend throughout the whole of society, like the legal system. In fact in the aftermath of the Fall of the Wall when the Russians were struggling to come to grips with a situation where the rule of law had been absent for several generations, Popper proposed that the French or German legal codes might be taken on board more or less in toto to plug the gap. The point was that plenty of people from France or Germany could advise on the operation and the modification of the system.

"Piecemeal social experiments can be carried out under realistic conditions, in the midst of society, in spite of being on a ‘small scale’, that is to say, without revolutionizing the whole of society. In fact, we are making such experiments all the time. The introduction of a new kind of life-insurance, of a new kind of taxation, of a new penal reform, are all social experiments which have their repercussions through the whole of society without remodelling society as a whole".

Further thoughts on Radicalism (with Cambodia and China in mind)

"There is one element within Utopianism which is particularly characteristic of Plato’s approach and which Marx does not oppose, although it is perhaps the most important of those elements which I have attacked as unrealistic. It is the sweep of Utopianism, its attempt to deal with society as a whole, leaving no stone unturned. It is the conviction that one has to go to the very root of the social evil, that nothing short of a complete eradication of the offending social system will do if we wish to ‘bring any decency into the world’ (as Du Gard says). It is, in short, its uncompromising radicalism."

"This sweep, this extreme radicalism of the Platonic approach (and of the Marxian as well) is, I believe, connected with its aestheticism, i.e. with the desire to build a world which is not only a little better and more rational than ours, but which is free from all its ugliness: not a crazy quilt, an old garment badly patched, but an entirely new gown, a really beautiful new world. This aestheticism is a very understandable attitude; in fact, I believe most of us suffer a little from such dreams of perfection. But this aesthetic enthusiasm becomes valuable only if it is bridled by reason, by a feeling of responsibility, and by a humanitarian urge to help. Otherwise it is a dangerous enthusiasm, liable to develop into a form of neurosis or hysteria."

"Asked about the details of their draughtsmanship, Plato’s ‘Socrates’ gives the following striking reply: ‘They will take as their canvas a city and the characters of men, and they will, first of all, make their canvas clean—by no means an easy matter. But this is just the point, you know, where they will differ from all others. They will not start work on a city nor on an individual (nor will they draw up laws) unless they are given a clean canvas, or have cleaned it themselves.’"

"The kind of thing Plato has in mind when he speaks of canvas-cleaning is explained a little later. ‘How can that be done?’ asks Glaucon. ‘All citizens above the age of ten’, Socrates answers, ‘must be expelled from the city and deported somewhere into the country; and the children who are now free from the influence of the manners and habits of their parents must be taken over. They must be educated in the ways [of true philosophy], and according to the laws, which we have described.’ (The philosophers are not, of course, among the citizens to be expelled: they remain as educators, and so do, presumably, those non-citizens who must keep them going.) …This is the way in which the artist-politician must proceed. This is what canvas-cleaning means. He must eradicate the existing institutions and traditions. He must purify, purge, expel, banish, and kill. (‘Liquidate’ is the terrible modern term for it.) Plato’s statement is indeed a true description of the uncompromising attitude of all forms of out-and-out radicalism—of the aestheticist’s refusal to compromise."

"The view that society should be beautiful like a work of art leads only too easily to violent measures. But all this radicalism and violence is both unrealistic and futile. (This has been shown by the example of Russia’s development. After the economic breakdown to which the canvas-cleaning of the so-called ‘war communism’ had led, Lenin introduced his ‘New Economic Policy’, in fact a kind of piecemeal engineering, though without the conscious formulation of its principles or of a technology. He started by restoring most of the features of the picture which had been eradicated with so much human suffering. Money, markets, differentiation of income, and private property—for a time even private enterprise in production—were reintroduced, and only after this basis was re-established began a new period of reform.)"

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The Open Society and its Enemies
Karl Popper